Last night, I attended Smithsonian Associates’ advance screening of the second episode of Sonic Highways, the HBO series directed by Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl. Officially premiering tonight, this installment deals with D.C., a place close to Grohl’s heart: The musician grew up in nearby Springfield, Virginia, and made inroads into the local punk scene as a teenager.
Sonic Highways is really about the process of recording the latest Foo Fighters album in eight American cities, and this episode (I haven’t seen the others) deals with Grohl’s own musical coming-of-age. But along the way, the show aims to trace at least a few decades of D.C. music history, and it does that well—though clearly within the parameters of Grohl’s own experience.
After a short discussion of the 1968 riots and class/race stratification in the District, Sonic Highways takes on go-go, leaning heavily on feedback from Trouble Funk’s “Big Tony” Fisher. Grohl pulls choice footage of Chuck Brown’s live shows, explores the go-go pocket and grabs a few soundbites from Pharrell Williams and D.C. Mayor Vince Gray. But Grohl discusses go-go mostly through a rock lens. Virginia hip-hop/rock band RDGLDGRN (Grohl collaborators), Black Cat co-owner Dante Ferrando and Dischord Records’ Ian MacKaye—among others—all have their say on go-go, then the show moves right into punk and parks itself there for the rest of the episode. Anyone looking for a thorough study of D.C.’s most distinctive African-American music won’t find it here.
The show’s brightest moments come from key footage of local shows, images by scene photographers like Lucian Perkins and—above all—the swath of big personalities Grohl roped into the episode. MacKaye and punk activist Mark Andersen get a lot of well-spent screen time, but the candid Trouble Funk leader, Bad Brains’ funny and direct bassist Darryl Jenifer and bearded superproducer Rick Rubin made some of the strongest—or at least funniest—contributions. (Though I suspect it was Rubin’s L.A. Buddha routine, not his quotes, that produced the laughs at last night’s screening.)
Toward the end of the episode, The Foo Fighters charge into “The Feast and the Famine,” a song it recorded at Arlington’s Inner Ear Studio and wrote based on elements of D.C. music discussed in the program. (Hear the song below.) The song’s title speaks to that commonly cited dichotomy so central to D.C.’s identity: that this is a city home to both the world’s greatest power and the starkest example of that power’s disastrous failure.
It’s obvious that Grohl doesn’t have deep ties to the underprivileged half of that dichotomy, and certainly doesn’t now—in the Q-and-A that followed last night’s screening, Grohl said he paid for the entire TV series by playing two stadium shows in Mexico City—but he gives it pride of place on an extremely visible platform. The show’s emphasis on activism is unexpected and commendable, considering that the local punk scene’s hard-left, DIY-or-don’t-bother attitude is what granted it staying power—even more than the sound of D.C. punk rock, which has taken so many forms over the decades.
Early in the episode, Mark Andersen summarizes one of the most valuable takeaways from Sonic Highways, though he can’t take full credit for it himself. “Charles Dickens I think once called Washington, D.C. ‘the city of magnificent intentions,'” Andersen says. “The gap between the dream and the reality is excruciatingly wide.”
The show airs tonight at 11 p.m. on HBO. Tonight’s screening and Foo Fighters show at Black Cat is sold out.